Atlanta Mayor Bottoms seeking more federal coronavirus relief

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

ATLANTA – Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asked Congress Friday for more aid to help local governments cope with the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bottoms told members of the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that Atlanta received $89 million in direct assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Congress passed overwhelmingly in March, plus another $338.5 million that went to city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Still, Atlanta is facing a $35 million to $40 million budget shortfall because of the impact the business lockdown resulting from the pandemic has had on tax collections, Bottoms said.

“Cities can only do so much,” said Bottoms, part of a parade of U.S. mayors invited to testify at Friday’s subcommittee hearing. “We need additional assistance to bolster small businesses and people working paycheck to paycheck in jobs that have been endangered or put on hold.”

Bottoms and the other mayors endorsed the latest coronavirus relief bill before Congress, which includes $375 billion in direct aid to local governments. The Democratic-controlled House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Solutions (HEROES) Act earlier this month, but it has gotten a cool reception from the U.S. Senate’s Republican majority.

Bottoms said Atlanta has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 because it’s the mostly densely populated city in Georgia and due to its large population of African-Americans, who data shows are being affected disproportionately by the virus.

She said another factor increasing Atlanta’s exposure to coronavirus is that Georgia was among the first states to begin reopening businesses closed because of the pandemic.

The city itself is pursuing a “thoughtful and strategic reopening that is driven by data” and based on the recommendations of a 60-member committee of business, academic, faith-based and philanthropic leaders, Bottoms said.

“We are encouraged by the progress we’re making,” the mayor said. “But we are not out of the woods yet.”

Ossoff pads money lead in Democratic U.S. Senate primary race

Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Investigative journalist Jon Ossoff has grown his fund-raising lead in the final stretch leading up to the June 9 Democratic U.S. Senate primary.

Ossoff’s campaign raised $739,362 between April 1 and May 20, according to the final campaign-finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) before next month’s election to choose a Democrat to challenge incumbent Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson raised $402,003 during the same period, followed by businesswoman and 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Sarah Riggs Amico, whose campaign brought in $237,381.

Ossoff’s totals for April and the first three weeks in May padded a fund-raising advantage he already enjoyed over his two main Democratic opponents. Overall, he has raised more than $4.1 million, compared to almost $2.5 million for Tomlinson and nearly $1.7 million for Amico.

Ossoff, who lost a special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District seat to Republican Karen Handel in 2017, noted in a news release that he is refusing contributions from corporate political action committees. He also has raised all of his campaign funds without resorting to personal loans.

Tomlinson floated a $50,000 loan to her campaign in recent weeks, in addition to a $30,000 loan earlier in the campaign cycle. Amico’s fund-raising totals include a personal loan of $765,000.

All three candidates have raised enough money to air TV ads in recent weeks. Entering the last weeks of the primary race, Ossoff still had $950,850 left in his campaign treasury, compared to $236,985 cash on hand for Tomlinson and $177,771 for Amico.

Perdue faces no Republican opposition on June 9 and will hold a huge financial advantage over whichever Democrat wins that party’s nomination. Seeking a second six-year term, Perdue had raised more than $13.4 million through May 20 and had almost $9.4 million remaining, according to his report to the FEC.

However, the race is shaping up as more competitive than the fund-raising disparity between Perdue and the Democrats would indicate.

A recent online poll conducted by Civiqs and published by left-leaning website DailyKos found Ossoff with a slight lead over Perdue, 47% to 45%. However, that amounted to a virtual tie because the poll’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 3.1%.

The same poll showed Perdue ahead of Tomlinson by a single percentage point and leading Amico by three.

Kemp to let bars, summer school open in Georgia amid COVID-19

Coronavirus has sickened thousands of people and killed hundreds in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Gov. Brian Kemp moved Thursday to relax broad social restrictions in Georgia on bars, nightclubs, summer school classes and overnight summer camps in the coming weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Kemp also announced he will extend the public health emergency in Georgia through July 12, granting him powers to continue issuing executive orders.

The latest pulling back of business restrictions comes amid a bump in positive coronavirus cases in recent days prompting caution from local health experts concerned about people returning too quickly to normal behavior.

At a news conference, the governor said “encouraging data” trends in the number of positive coronavirus cases and hospitalizations convinced him it was time to start slowly reopening more businesses.

“We remain encouraged by the numbers that we are seeing in testing, hospitalizations and a wide variety of other data points across the state,” Kemp said.

In an executive order the governor signed Thursday, bars and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen starting June 1 after nearly two months of closures, so long as establishments meet strict rules. Restrictions include limiting occupancy to 25 patrons or 35% of a building’s occupancy and only serving drinks to seated patrons or in designated areas.

Summer school classes will be allowed starting next month if schools can keep students separated in classrooms and routinely sanitize facilities. Overnight summer camps will be permitted starting May 31 under similar sanitizing and social distancing requirements.

Live performance venues will remain closed for the foreseeable future, though Kemp said he is working with businesses owners on a reopening plan.

Kemp also announced businesses like restaurants and other gathering spots will be allowed to have larger groups of up to 25 people if they keep six feet of space between them starting in June. The six-foot rule has applied for several weeks to groups of up to 10 people.

Additionally, the governor is allowing amusement parks, water parks, carnivals and circuses to reopen under several restrictions starting June 12. Sports leagues will also be permitted to hold practices starting June 1 and must abide by guidelines that the leagues themselves have drafted, Kemp said.

As of 1 p.m. Thursday, more than 45,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. The virus had killed 1,962 Georgians.

Kemp and health officials attributed a bump in positive COVID-19 cases seen on the state Department of Public Health’s website in recent days to a large backlog of old test results the agency received from private labs over the weekend.

The state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, backed Kemp’s decision to ease business restrictions, citing the state’s bolstered testing capacity and the hiring of 800 contact tracers tasked with charting an infected person’s web of physical interactions.

“I felt very comfortable … particularly because the data trends have been staying very, very favorable,” Toomey said Thursday.

Ahead of Kemp’s news conference, leading health experts at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta urged people to continue keeping their distance from each other even as social restrictions begin to relax.

“This pandemic is not over just because a politician is saying it’s safe to get out,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, who chairs the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. “I think there are important economic decisions that need to be made, but what I would tell people is … take care of yourselves, practice social distancing, be careful.”

“The data tells me that I should probably continue sheltering in place,” he added. “I’m not ready to go to a restaurant yet.”

Del Rio, who previously criticized Kemp for waiting too long before ordering Georgians to shelter-in-place, said he expects to see positive COVID-19 cases rise as people interact with each other more and testing increases.

He and a colleague at Emory, Dr. Colleen Kraft, said people need to weigh how comfortable they are exposing themselves or family members to the virus. Kraft, an associate chief medical officer at Emory, said the state should start gaining a better picture of whether cases are on the rise “within the next month.”

In the meantime, Kraft said Georgians should consider viewing their social habits within a “coronavirus circle,” by which she meant the number of other people someone could potentially expose by ignoring social-distancing practices.

“The bottom line is you need to be aware of keeping yourself safe and other people safe,” Kraft said Thursday. “We’re in a country of personal choices, but you need to be sure that you’re being respectful to other people and their medical fragility.”

Georgia Power Co. to cut fuel recovery rate by 17.2%

ATLANTA – Georgia Power Co. customers will get a reduction of $5.32 on the average monthly electric bill after the state Public Service Commission (PSC) voted Thursday to lower the Atlanta-based utility’s fuel recovery costs.

The PSC and Georgia Power agreed on a two-year plan that will reduce fuel rates by 17.2%, for a total of about $740 million. The new rates take effect June 1.

In addition, a special interim reduction on fuel rates this summer will lower the typical customer’s bill by $10.26 per month through September.

“We saw an opportunity to … provide additional relief to customers navigating the impacts of COVID-19 this summer,” said Paul Bowers, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia  Power.

The reduction in the company’s fuel rate is driven primarily by lower natural gas prices as a result of increased natural gas supplies.

Fuel rates are set separately from base rates. The commission approved an increase in base rates for Georgia Power last December, raising its basic service fee for residential customer from $10 to $14 a month through 2022.

The utility’s last fuel rate adjustment was in 2016.

Georgia film tax credit draws scrutiny at budget hearing

ATLANTA – Georgia’s effective but expensive film tax credit came up for discussion Thursday during a legislative hearing on deep budget cuts lawmakers will face when they resume the 2020 General Assembly session next month.

The state’s growing film industry generated about $8.5 billion in economic impact during the last fiscal year, including $2.9 billion in direct spending, Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, told members of a state Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

About 90,000 Georgians were employed in film and TV productions before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the industry, Wilson said.

However, Georgia’s most expensive tax credit also costs state taxpayers about $400 million a year.

With Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative leaders looking to reduce state spending even before COVID-19 hit the state, the cost of the tax credit prompted two critical audits last January. Those audits, in turn, helped spur the introduction of legislation calling for stricter rules on the transfer or sale of unused credits, a common practice for production groups that base part of their movie-making work outside of Georgia.

Prohibiting the transfer of film tax credits might convince more studios that film in Georgia to move their entire operations to the Peach State, Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, a member of the subcommittee, suggested Thursday.

But Wilson said Georgia would lose a significant amount of its film business if the state tried to force film producers to put their headquarters here or lose the tax credits.

“The studios that are writing the checks and paying the money are in Los Angeles,” he said. “A lot of them are moving operations here. That doesn’t mean they’re going to leave the talent base they have in California.”

Meanwhile, Wilson outlined how the economic development agency plans to prioritize its operations while cutting its budget by nearly $5 million to meet 14% across-the-board spending reductions state agencies are being required to offer up to help offset a substantial loss of tax revenue resulting from the coronavirus-driven economic lockdown.

He said the department’s marketing activities in global commerce and tourism will absorb the brunt of the cuts rather than the payroll.

“We have a great pipeline [of potential projects] in practically every division,” he said. “We decided to keep personnel so we could work the pipeline we have now.”

But Wilson warned that depleting the agency’s marketing funds will only work in the short run, to get the department through the tight fiscal 2021 budget.

“The long-term impact will be significant if we don’t come back with marketing,” he said. “We are going to have to grow back.”

Georgia unemployment claims, benefits payments trending downward

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA  – Initial unemployment claims in Georgia fell last week for the third time in the last four weeks, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

However, the agency also released a regional breakdown of April unemployment that showed record highs in many parts of Georgia as the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic deepened.

Record joblessness occurred in Atlanta, coastal Georgia, Northeast Georgia, Northwest Georgia, the River Valley Region surrounding Columbus and the Three Rivers Region southwest of Atlanta.

Whitfield County had the state’s highest unemployment rate last month at 20.6%, followed by Murray County at 20.1%, Clay County at 18.1%, Chattooga County at 17.1%, Glynn County at 17.0%, Chatham County at 16.4%, Clayton County at 16.0%, Meriwether County at 15.8%, Troup County at 15.4%, and Heard County at 15.1%.

 “We are seeing all-time high unemployment rates across a majority of the state,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said. “We are continuing to work with employers on effective strategies to get Georgians back to work in both a safe and economically efficient way.”

The 165,499 initial unemployment claims filed last week in Georgia were down about 12,000 from the previous week.

Weekly unemployment benefits paid out during the last week totaled $159.5 million, down $28 million from the previous week, the first decline in weekly benefits paid since the week ending March 21. Since that date, the state has paid out nearly $1.1 billion in unemployment benefits, more than the last three years combined.

Over the past ten weeks, the accommodation and food services job sector has accounted for 563,631 initial unemployment claims, the largest by far. The health care and social assistance sector is next with 254,406 claims, followed closely by retail trade with 252,688 claims.  

The labor department is continuing to work with employers to announce job opportunities that are critical during the coronavirus crisis – some in the workplace and others that can be done from home. More than 101,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com.